One of the distinguishing features of the CLS Program in Ufa, Russia, is the culminating week in the village of Aigir. Nestled in the Ural Mountains and reachable solely via a single commuter train, this small Bashkir settlement gives one a taste of an entirely different Russia—indeed one that hasn’t changed much since the 19th century. With a permanent population of only a couple families, the summer traffic is comprised almost entirely of near-locals tending to their dachas, backpackers, and the participants in a summer English camp operated by a singular woman, Tatiana Dmitrievna Shabanova.
As participants of CLS’s 2010 Ufa program, Becky Stakun, Jasmine Whelan, and I agreed to return to this idyllic setting in the capacity of English teachers a year later. During the month of July in 2011, we worked for Professor Shabanova, instructing about 120 Russian students over the course of three 10-day shifts. Our duties encompassed a variety of tasks, from designing lesson plans to guiding students through the creation of field projects, and from staging skits to planning evening events that ranged from battles of the sexes to talent shows.
One of the immediate things to strike us when we returned to Aigir a year later was how different the Aigir experience was as staff members than it had been as CLS students. As the only three Americans on a staff of about 20, there was ample opportunity to interact with the Russian teachers and group leaders as peers. Over the course of planning lessons, coming up with new ways to embarrass ourselves via song-and-dance routines, and sharing precious commodities from the nearby village of Enzir, a real sense of camaraderie developed among us. Additionally, we found ourselves having to be more flexible and resourceful than I think any of us anticipated based on our past experience as students. For example, during any given shift, I taught five different levels of students. Trying to pin-point engaging and appropriate activities for all my students with no access to the Internet or photocopiers proved very challenging at times!
I never anticipated having the opportunity to return to Aigir. After all, what are the odds of ending up in the same tiny remote Russian village twice in one’s lifetime?! However, I think I can express our overall shared sentiment by saying that teaching in Aigir was an invaluable and truly unique experience that I will look back fondly on for many years to come!